If anyone personifies taking lemons and making lemonade, it might just be director Terry Gilliam. The filmmaker is almost as known for the battles he’s endured on various pictures than the movies themselves, but it speaks to his spirit and determination that he’s created a singular and distinctive catalog of work. There are few moviemakers who could’ve not only made “Brazil,” but turned out a masterpiece in an environment where the studio was actively working against the director (documented thoroughly in The Criterion Collection‘s excellent edition of the film). “Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas” is still the closest anyone has come to capturing Hunter S. Thompson‘s fever dream prose, while “Twelve Monkeys” endures to the point that SyFy is now ordering up a pilot for a TV show based on the movie (and no, Gilliam has not been contacted about it).
Some kind of struggle has greeted more than a handful of Gilliam’s films over the past few years, but “The Zero Theorem” is something of a break from that unofficial tradition. Ramping up quickly last year, attracting Oscar winner Christoph Waltz for the lead, with Tilda Swinton, Melanie Thierry, Ben Whishaw, Matt Damon and more in supporting roles, the production couldn’t have gone more smoothly. Naturally, Gilliam wasn’t entirely free from constraints, as he had to work with his smallest budget in decades, but when we caught up with him recently to talk about the movie, his enthusiasm was undeniable.
We had a long chat with Terry Gilliam and below is part one of our conversation, focusing mostly on “The Zero Theorem,” which premieres at the Venice Film Festival, where it’s one of our most highly anticipated movies of the fest that kicks off this week. Stay tuned tomorrow for even more from our discussion with the director.
Having a project come together this fast, was that something you were willing to embrace?
Yeah, I love the idea of just suddenly working fast, working instinctively, not having time to double think anything. It’s as simple as when Christoph Waltz and I met [and he agreed to do the film]. That was it, it was green-lit at that point. And then pre-production was very quick, everything moved fast. That creates a lot of problems and it also solves a lot of problems, in that you don’t have a choice available. And then there was probably more time than normal to spend in post, trying to adjust to what we had actually got on film, [into] a film that I was happy with. [Laughs]
The cast for this is great. Once you had Christoph Waltz, was it easier to get everyone else together?
It was easier because the film had been green-lit at that point. Once something is being made, it’s easier. It ended up being a collection of friends. I remember calling Matt Damon and he didn’t even look at the script; he said “Yeah, come on, we’ll do it.” Tilda Swinton, who I’ve always wanted to work with, she said yeah. It was incredibly easy to get people because it’s an interesting project; the characters they play are very interesting, quirky, and very different then what they often play. A lot of these parts required a day or two which is easier in people’s schedules because the movie is Christoph, he’s never off.
The next person who’s on most is Lucas Hedges whose father is Peter Hedges; he a film writer, he’s done some big films [ed. he wrote and directed “Pieces Of April” and “Dan In Real Life“; he’s penned “About A Boy” and “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?“]. Lucas was in “Moonrise Kingdom“; he was the kid who gets injured. He jumped off the screen for me and he sent a tape in and that was it; it was really fast. Melanie Thierry who plays the female lead; a friend of mine in France suggested her and she was phenomenal. I think she’s the one that’s going to come out of this thing as a real surprise to people. She’s extraordinary. There was one day we needed these doctors for a big scene and I got Peter Stormare. It was great because they only had to be there for two or three days, maximum. That doesn’t happen that often that you can find really good parts, given enough space in the film for only a few days.
When you’re making a film, do you have a sense of how it’s going to turn out or does the editing process help you see the end result more clearly?
Well, normally I have a pretty clear idea in my head for a year or two and then they all change once you start shooting because reality intrudes on your imagination and dreams, but that’s normal. This one was a little bit different in the sense it all happened very quickly. This project I’d been involved with about five years earlier and then put it aside; I didn’t think about it anymore until June of last year and then suddenly all my other plans had collapsed and I was looking for something to do. My agent said, “What about ‘Zero Theorem’?” We started in June when we said “Let’s see if we can make this” and we were done shooting in October — that never happens. The time was very short, the shooting schedule; I think it was about the same number of days of we had on “[Monty Python And The] Holy Grail,” back when we were younger and naïve.
From what I understand the budget was fairly modest. How did you find working within such small means?
I hadn’t worked for that little money for over 30 years…it was just “get it on with,” try to survive. Once you go, you’re in the race and you just got to keep going. It was constant impossibilities overcome. But that’s why it’s important to have a good team of people, it’s kind of a test of our abilities; how many tricks we have up our sleeves.
Is this a film with a lot of special effects?
About 250 effect shots, which is a considerable number. It was real, we shot everything. There’s an interesting scene between Tilda Swinton and Christoph, they’re in two different sets but it’s all live; she’s on the computer and he’s in his burnt out chapel but they were actually in the same studio, in different sets on the studio talking in this way. We did many things on the computer. We’ve got other environments, a tropical island we had to create digitally. It’s a mixture. Obviously we used any tools; I’m not a purist in any way. The only pure part is we shot on film because we can and we could and we did.
Did you consider 3D at all for Zero Theorem?
No, it’s expensive. I don’t like 3D that much, I don’t like the glasses. I think it was an interesting way of getting people to buy new television sets. I’m convinced it was never about the films, it was about a new way to buy television sets. [U.K. network] Sky, for a period, was putting money in 3D and now they’ve just given up.
It sounds like, compared to the experiences of ‘Parnassus’ or ‘Grimm,’ that this was a really smooth shoot.
Except for the sadness that [producer] Dick Zanuck, the force who got me involved, died just before shooting. I don’t want to keep spreading that rumor about the death rate of my films! Dick was a really good friend and an extraordinary man, and after spending bunches on me to get the film up and he never got to see it. It’s really sad.
You said the script was one you had looked at before. Is there a bigger budget version of this movie that’s wildly different?
No, it was the same script. When we were talking about doing it five years ago, the budget was over twice as big, and it’s the same movie. In fact, because of the way I like expanding things, it might be a bigger movie [now]. [Laughs]. For less than half the money, we did something slightly bigger.
When you’re making films, do you watch movies to get inspiration?
No….I tend not to. I don’t want to see films, they depress me because I always have great doubts at any moment, and when I look at a good film I get terribly depressed [Laughs]. I tend to look at paintings, and other ways of finding an angle on it. In this one, we began with a German painter named Neo Rauch. He’s phenomenal and I said, “This is what we should be going for.” His paintings combine things from different times and places and different styles so they become this weird collage, which is basically what I’ve always worked in. In that sense, the film is a collage of many things, in the same way people said about “Brazil.” It’s the past, and the future, and the present all squished together. What I found interesting, was that we were doing stuff and I thought “This is the future,” and I kept referring to it as London-Sooner-Than-You-Think, and now they’re already a reality. I’m not sure if there’s any present anymore, maybe we’re just living in the future the whole time and the space between the present and the future has just disappeared.
How do you feel about “Zero Theorem” now that it’s done? Do you have any thoughts on how it’ll be received?
It’s impossible to predict. Fewer people have seen “Zero Theorem” during the making of it and the editing of it than any film I’ve done. The basis of any predictions is not solid. Harry Knowles, he said it was the best thing I’ve done since “Brazil” and watched it three times in a row. That kind of excitement and enthusiasm about a film is what I love and it doesn’t mean it’ll find a monstrously huge audience, but there’s enough of an audience for it. I just keep clinging to the fact that “The Wizard of Oz” and “Singin’ in the Rain” weren’t big hits when they came out [Laughs].
What can you tell people about the film? What can you say about this movie and how it fits into your body of work?
That’s the hard part, trying to describe it. I’ve never been good at describing what I do, I just do it. Here’s the simple, quick sound bite: I think I made “Brazil” for 2013. “Brazil” had things that were obsessing me about the world at that time, and same thing here. This is more about connectivity, the connected universe, and whether you can separate yourself from it. It’s a very hard thing to describe as far as storytelling but there is a man who really wants to be on his own even though his work is about a very big question; whether the universe is in control or chaos. He just wants to get away from people and everything, just be alone, and yet he’s not allowed to be. Some of that is good and some of it is bad. He discovers his humanity in the course. Where he ends up is a surprise.
“The Zero Theorem” will screen at the Venice Film Festival. There is no U.S. distributor or release date yet.